Benjamin and Yesid, two angels who survived three years in cages in the jungle as FARC prisoners of war.
I dare say, I met two angels. I wonder if you have to have been to hell to possess such inner strength and purity.
Benjamin and Yesid were two brothers who were serving their obligatory military service, as common soldiers, when, in 1998, the FARC captured them as prisoners of war. Three years later, the government of Andres Pastrana negotiated their release, and that of 300 other soldiers and policemen, in exchange for jailed FARC commanders.
For three years, Benjamin and Yesid lived in cages with 60 other soldiers and policemen. The first place was “like a henhouse,” said Yesid, with chicken-wire, and the last one was “for pigs” with an eternally wet and slippery mud floor. The group worked out a monetary system using cigarettes to exchange sewing needles, clothing, deodorants, and soaps with each other, and they improvised weights made from sand-filled rags tied onto tree limbs. For entertainment, they imitated politicians, singers, and the FARC guerrillas they’d see everyday outside their cages. They also took apart their own socks and reused the thread to patch up the rags covering them. The whole three years, the brothers wore mostly their military uniforms, refusing to wear anything resembling guerilla clothing.
“Once, we overheard the FARC had stolen a truck-load of sweatshirts. We joked that perhaps they’d give them to us. Come Christmas, they did!” Benjamin said. The FARC never allowed the Red Cross to visit them. A guerrilla dentist took out one of Yesid’s molars – “but it was fine. Turns out, there was no need to extract it,” he said, laughing. The two showed off a mouthful of straight healthy teeth. Their brown eyes sparkled.
They did not look at all like brothers. Yesid, 26 when I met him, had dark short hair, gelled toward the front, a black goatee and a mustache. Benjamin, 24, had very short light brown hair he wore spiked up with gel. He was taller than Yesid. “Damn, we missed out on ‘Betty, la Fea.’ Everyone talks about it,” said Benjamin. The original “Ugly Betty” was Colombian.
When they returned home after the three-year ordeal they received the equivalent of US $1200 dollars as compensation, as a “salary” they would otherwise have been receiving.
$1200! THAT’S IT.
And unemployment, of course.
Through the Matamoros Corporation, an NGO, Benjamin and Yesid finished high school and received psychological help. They both want to return to the army, to pursue a military career, or to at least volunteer as reservists.
“But the shrinks tell us in another war situation, we’ll go ballistic,” Yesid said.
“We’ll start blowing up our own people,” Benjamin added.
They said such things with humor, with the lightness of knowing—really knowing—that whatever happened from now, after having survived three years of life in cages, out in the open, exposed to sun, rain, thunder, bugs, bees, wild cats, and whatever else there was in the jungle, they’ll be alright.
Why did these men not sound more bitter? Why have they not killed themselves? I was not kidding when I said—I met these two angels. Something inside them glowed. They survived hell, and they knew that. That’s powerful.
This week, the FARC resurrected the idea of exchanging policemen and military personnel for FARC prisoners. So predictable, on cue with what happens when there’s about to be a change of government.